Alan Petersen on childhood obesity in Australia

Alan Petersen, Professor of Sociology at Monash University (Melbourne, Australia), gave the second seminar in The Politics and Practices of Food Governance series. Alan’s talk drew on findings from a recent study[1] that explores how mothers engage with childhood obesity policy and practice in childcare centres. For that purpose Alan and his colleagues recruited participants for an interview study from three childcare sites in Melbourne, Australia, and conducted in-depth qualitative interviews with eight mothers and two childcare workers per site (n=30). The research team asked mothers and childcare workers about:

  • Day-to-day practices of nutritional care, diet and weight management including child food preferences and portion control
  • What ‘health’, a ‘healthy diet’,  ‘healthy weight’ and ‘appropriate’ physical activity meant to them
  • Sense of responsibility concerning children’s diet and weight
  • Challenges encountered in providing a ‘healthy’ diet and ensuring the ‘healthy’ weight of children
  • Information received about and attitudes towards overweight in children and childhood obesity
  • Public health interventions, advice received and experiences

As numerous excerpts from the interviews showed, the effort to manage diets as ‘responsible’ mothers and citizens proved challenging to the interviewed mothers. The diversity of information about children’s nutritional needs and what constitutes ‘healthy ’ diets, the constraints posed by personal socio-economic circumstances, and the need to juggle domestic and non-domestic activities all made dietary management more complex.

Alan drew attention to the significance and role of emotions in this context. He talked about mothers’ anxieties and worries in relation to their children’s (future) health. From a theoretical point of view, Alan suggested viewing social anxieties as they pertain to health, body weight and diet as integral to contemporary, neoliberal rule and the ‘responsibilisation’ of mothers. As such, the study highlights the gendered division of emotional labour in private and public spheres, and seeks to understand this as a form of ‘affective governance’.

While efforts to align personal practices with prescribed ideals of ‘healthy, responsible’ motherhood can be taxing and generate anxiety, Alan argued, it would be wrong to suggest that mothers accept expert discourses uncritically.

In summary, Alan and his colleagues demonstrated that mothers are well aware of dominant policy and expert discourses in relation to childhood obesity, and are conscientious about how they engage with and negotiate these discourses. However, this engagement is not always graspable in the public health policy terms of ‘making healthy choices’. Choice as a concept through which to view – in this case the Australian mothers’ – food purchasing and preparation practices is not only limited by food affordability, accessibility and availability, but also does not reflect the lived reality of mothers’ care practices in relation to food and eating. To examine this dissonance, we can problematize the notion of ‘choice’ as the ‘anchor’ of food purchasing and consumption. What Alan and his colleagues’ study alerts us to, then, are the limitations of choice as a key concept for understanding mothers’ food practices – and hence, the limitations of choice as a key concept for public health policies that frame childhood obesity as an issue of consumption.

We will make a recording of this talk available shortly.


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